Voters give too much weight to gas prices in presidential elections

Sam Chapman

Illustration: Katie Berfield

In March, ABC News and The Washington Post conducted a poll in which 62 percent of responders said they disapproved of President Obama’s handling of rising gas prices. There is a growing fear that members of that fraction will take their discontent to the voting booth, a fear signified by the fact that his opponents have chosen that issue as their attack of choice in battleground states (according to Now, discontentment at gas pumps isn’t necessarily a reason to believe Obama will be voted out of office, but when a trend has the president scrambling to make speeches and his enemies scrambling to attack them, it’s going to worry some people––myself included.

This would result in a presidential election gone drastically awry. It is not wrong to vote based on gas prices, but it is very wrong to vote based entirely on gas prices.

People get angry about the cost of a gallon, and it’s easy to see why: Unless we’re unemployed, in the military or directly threatened by rising sea levels, few other issues have the same power to batter down our doors. Gas goes up to $3 per gallon, so we trade our car in for one that gets 30 mpg; gas thanks us by going up to $4 per gallon. It can, at times, seem like a Sisyphean grind.

That said, choosing who to back for president based on this will work against one over time. First of all, numbers can be misleading. George W. Bush benefited from a fortuitous drop in oil prices right before he took office; Barack Obama suffered from a fluctuation in the opposite direction. It’s less a matter of policy than of timing––and while it would be nice to know which candidate was a luckier person, it’s something we can’t determine.

Second, wrestling with the oil market is barely within the president’s control. A column on the website Consumer Energy Report details how the price we pay for oil is dependent not on our domestic production, but on competition with the developing world: The higher the demand in China and India, the more we have to pay to compete. The most industry-friendly decisions Obama could make––with which I disagree––would have little effect until years had passed.

Yet, as I said above, I don’t think that voting based on gasoline policy is a mistake on its own. A president who promises to work for fuel efficiency, and against Big Oil, will have a positive impact on the world, even if they can’t control gas prices. More than that, though, they will have the people’s best interests at heart. There’s no better reason to vote for a candidate.

It’s a valid perspective, and one that I espouse myself: Each American has only one vote, and no obligation to use it for the sake of anybody but themselves. If an issue is not on our doorstep, it need not inform our decision. However, the range of issues on each of our doorsteps is larger than we may think. It includes the issues that have the potential to affect us in the future, even if they may not now: health care, because we won’t always be strong; welfare, because we won’t always be employed; even social issues like abortion and marriage rights, because someday many of us will have daughters and sons.

When you cast your vote, it’s acceptable to be selfish, and it’s perfectly acceptable to keep it in mind if you’re hurting at the pump––just as long as you take a sensible and far-sighted view. A good gas policy can hint at a good politician, but it is only one part of your life, and it is far from adequate proof.